Arguments often escalate because of a simple misunderstanding: because men so often seem not to say much (responding with a grunt or nod or yes, of course dear), when they do finally put a sentence together and a woman is looking for meaning in what he says, she thinks he is staking out a position.
He’s not. He’s negotiating. He’s exploring options and collecting information. He is, ultimately, putting all the known pieces of the puzzle on the table so he can have a better view of the problem prior to deliberating and arriving at a conclusion.
She is often thinking every question, every comment, every statement is somehow a final verdict–and reacts in horror or disgust to what is being said. She feels un-heard. She is angry he’s circling around the problem, or answering a different question than she’s asking, and so heightens the intensity of her feelings.
And then you have a fight instead of a discussion.
Mandy: “My co-worker is asking if I want to move offices. Should I move offices?”
Barry: “What is the rent?”
Mandy: “What does rent have to do with it?”
Barry: “How much furniture do you have to move?”
Mandy: “Furniture? She has a window in her office and I don’t.”
Barry: “When is your lease up?”
Mandy: “You’re impossible! No snuggle snuggle for you tonight!”
Barry: “What if you moved in with a different co-worker or moved your office south?”
Mandy: “Are you serious? I don’t want to move! Down south? Are you listening to me?”
Both partners are making errors, but, I will argue, Mandy could diffuse the situation, and get the answer she wants, by employing a simple trick: answer the questions and be patient; after he has gathered some information, gets a lay-of-the-land, Barry will be better prepared to answer the question. Barry’s not trying to fight; he’s gathering information and throwing out possibilities, looking to see if any noodles stick to the wall.
Barry’s looking at options and possibilities; Mandy’s looking for an answer to her question.
To Mandy, the question is simple–should I move my office and does the move affect my relationship with my co-worker in a negative way–because I don’t want to upset the community if I don’t have to? She doesn’t understand that Barry doesn’t understand she’s worried about relationships.
To Barry, the question is a bit more complex and involves questions of labor, finance, value, and other Tetris like maneuvers that require the blocks to be positioned in his head adequately before he can respond with any confidence. He’s brainstorming and not yet answering the question.
Barry could, of course, say a simple “yes” or “no,” but that wouldn’t satisfy anyone. At the end of Barry’s probing, however, he will, most likely, come to a simple “yes” or “no,” but he will have shared with Mandy the logic that led him to his decision–a logic quite foreign (most likely) to Mandy who is employing a very different logic to the problem.
Our delightful couple is in for a cold night unless they both appreciate the difference in how they are discussing and arriving at a conclusion; they have different needs–hers is to satisfy the relational aspect of the question (how will moving my office affect the community that is currently in a certain kind of balance?), and his is to tackle the logistics of practical matters quite separate from the relational concerns–though that may be part of the larger equation (what are the moving parts and how can they most efficiently be put together with the least amount of friction?).
What BARRY can do: before he starts asking questions and probing the situation and its components, Barry should employ language that explains what he’s doing: “I’m thinking about your question. I want to ask you some questions about what’s happening and throw out some other scenarios just to see how you react to them, and then I can offer some advice if you still want some.”
The delay will calm Mandy and let her see Barry’s not avoiding her question or questioning her ability to think through the problem herself but is rather being thoughtful and engaging her with her issue.
What MANDY can do: stay calm. Don’t assume Barry is judging her or not taking the matter at hand seriously; Barry is simply thinking about Mandy’s concerns from a different perspective. Mandy should answer his questions while keeping in mind the ultimate concerns she is hoping to have addressed. Perhaps the conversation will bring in to focus the underlying reasons she is struggling with the decision, which is part of purpose of his questions and probing.
By not becoming defensive, Mandy will encourage Barry to explore with her; he may not come to the same conclusion or even help Mandy to get the information she thinks is valuable, but the sharing of ideas and investigation of unique perspectives will nudge the decision process along without diverting the partners into a quagmire of tension and accusations.
Often times, ladies, men seem to be distracting you from your concerns. To the contrary, they are engaged at a high level: they are negotiating an answer.
Don’t react to everything he says; not ever point he makes is a final decision or even a suggestion about what you should do: your partner is walking through the jungle, pointing out orchids and fire ants and dry wood for the fire. He is not telling you what to do; he is gathering information so you can both make a good decision.
Keep the possibility of snuggle snuggle alive: remember you’re coming from different logical, emotional, and rational places and give each other room to navigate in your unique ways: if you stay calm, office talk will lead to pillow talk.